We are all still floating from our wonderful Career Authors Writers Weekend at the glamorous MIT Endicott House! Last Monday our Brian Andrews put together a revealing compendium of one thing each of the Career Authors considered a major take away from the weekend. Read it. Those takeaways could change your writing life.
But in thinking back over those three days, there were some amazing moments where I actually saw an attendee’s brain click into place. I always say “You hear what you need to hear at the time that you need to hear it.” And that happened all weekend.
For instance. Starting on Friday, the attendees at the seminar were brave enough to read their first pages out loud to us. You have to picture it, the five Career Authors lined up at a table at the front of the room. The attendees, standing, one by one, reading their current first page out loud. One at a time.
I can tell you–the authors who read on Sunday all said they had changed their first pages based on what they had heard from other authors!
We can all learn from each other.
In a situation like the Career Authors weekend, it’s all part of the evolving process of your book. I saw some attendees’ eyes sadden when we offered constructive criticism, and I finally had to say: “Hey! This is not a test! ” This is not like standing up in front of your master’s thesis advisor and putting your diploma on the line. This is… a collaboration, a meeting of the minds, a brainstorming session.
When you read your first chapter page out loud in a situation like this, it is not pass or fail. It’s always: “Great idea! Let’s see how we can make this shine.” Do not fear, career authors, it’s a work in progress.
We’re so used to being in school, where a teacher grades our paper, where we get a A or an F, and our fate is sealed. But when you read your first page to an expert panel, it means doors will open. Ideas will happen. You will see how you can make it better. Extra applause to those who read their pages in the first session. They were pivotal in teaching those to come.
I will never forget the brave author who stood up read on Sunday’s final session and said something like: “Well, now I know. And I don’t have to read this to tell you: lazy first line, slipping point of view, no setting, nothing happens.”
She smiled. “Should I sit down? Or should I read it anyway?” What do you think we all said? “Read it anyway! Let’s hear the story.” And I’m telling you, that book is going to be terrific. But see how much the student learned just over that one weekend?
It was just what they needed to hear!
Nothing that you write is wasted.
Just — go for it. You can always cut it or change it or tweak it or fix it later. But sometimes what we write is just searching out the story. It’s our brains trying to discover what our novel is about. And sometimes that path is not straightforward. In fact, it hardly ever is.
I just interviewed the incredibly brilliant Taylor Adams, who told me that at one point in his new novel, he threw out, literally threw out–not tweaked, not edited, but obliterated–more than 5000 words. “What do you think about that,” I asked? And he said it was exactly what needed to happen for the book. And I said, “But you couldn’t have known that until you wrote it.” And he said, “Absolutely. Those 5000 or so words got me to where I needed to be.”
There are no shortcuts. Sometimes you just have to try it, try it again, assess it, adjust it, and have her realization. And then go on.
And I heard again the one line in publishing that is always shockingly surprising, and almost hilarious. And that is never to say to an agent or editor quote: “You’ve never read anything like this.” Doesn’t that seem wrong? But it’s so true.
Yes, we are taught growing up that individuality and uniqueness and groundbreaking thought are much to be desired and wonderful. And yes, indeed, that is absolutely true. But when you are trying to write a novel, or a piece of nonfiction, it is imperative that you are able to describe its place in the commercial publishing universe. One of the students was asked: “Is your book fiction or nonfiction?” And the student said “It’s a little of each.”
No, we all exclaimed! You have to know what you’re writing!
You have to know what you’re writing.
It’s an easier question when you ask yourself: where will my book be shelved in the bookstore or library? Lee Child often relates the story about the time his father told him that readers want something that is “the same but different.” So make your book gorgeously innovative—but a gorgeously innovative novel of suspense, or a gorgeously innovative paranormal, or a gorgeously innovative international adventure. Give a book its specific reality, and you have given it a place in publishing.
One author arrived with a set of amorphous—but interesting—ideas about a character and a theme and a setting. But what happened? There was no plot. By the end of the weekend, she came up with a great plot, even a log line, and knew she had a terrific book club book. Another writer thought he was writing non-fiction. By the end of the weekend—he realized he wasn’t. And his entire speculative fiction manuscript came to life. It was just what they needed to hear!
Taking your place at the table is life-changing.
I heard from so many of attendees that having this weekend together, with writers of all levels of experience, that they finally felt as if they had a place at the table. That they weren’t just dabbling, or hobbying, or, even, only dreaming. That when we are surrounded by people who are on our same writing path—we discover may be at different places along the road, but we are walking it together. Sometimes an intensive weekend with your pals becomes a weekend of opened doors. A weekend of instruction and guidance and reassurance can change your life. We hope we did that for you this weekend at Endicott, and every week, here on career authors.
What have you heard exactly when you needed to hear it? What would you like to hear more about? Let us know on the Career Authors Facebook page. And want to come join us next year? Space is limited, but we will put you on the list!